Colin Brazier: Cancel culture is 'less civilized' than the stocks

It may be 184 years to the day since the pillory was banned in Britain, but its modern equivalents are, in some respects, even less civilized.

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On a relatively quiet news day, I want to draw your attention to two anniversaries that might otherwise pass you by and which — though they’re in the past — may shed some light on our future.

The first is the anniversary today of Parliament’s formal and legal abolition in 1837 of the pillory. We still talk about how someone was pilloried, we mean it metaphorically now, not literally. But for hundreds of years it was the go-to form of public humiliation for wrongdoers who hadn’t necessarily committed a serious offence, but had scandalized society nonetheless.

The pillory consisted of two hinged pieces of wood which – when closed together and locked - trapped the head and the hands of a miscreant and left them exposed to the taunts and jeers of the many people who usually gathered to see what was going on.

Pillories were often placed on a platform, to give everyone a really good view, and plonked at crossroads and market places. In fact, anywhere guaranteed a good turn-out. You sometimes still see them, long disused, but still arousing interest. My local village pub beer garden has one.

Being in one must’ve been a deeply unpleasant experience. Your neighbours were joined by folk from all around to pelt you with rotten food, mud, offal and excrement. Sometimes a placard might be hung from the pillory, or its lesser punishment – the stocks (into which the feet went). It must’ve been a ghastly experience.

The whole thing could last hours…. But then it was over.

Whatever offence you’d caused was set aside, your dues had been paid, albeit embarrassingly.

How different things are now. It may be 184 years to the day since the pillory was banned in Britain, but its modern equivalents are, in some respects, even less civilized.

Our latest iteration of the stocks is cancel culture. And unlike the pillory, cancellation isn’t a short sharp shock of shame, but a powerful instrument of public humiliation that goes far beyond the here and now.

Instead of neighbours, anyone unfortunate enough to have triggered a Twitter mob into life, will find calls for their cancellation pouring in, not just from around the parish, but from different continents.

Denunciations, not from people prepared to lob a turnip at you, but from anonymous complainants who’ve registered a ‘micro-agression’ you may not even have noticed.

Wherever you are, however long ago it happened, Google will ensure everyone can see the extent of your modern day sinfulness.

Today’s other date from history that speaks to our present from the past, is the anniversary today of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997. Cancel culture in the West restricts free speech, but under the Chinese communist party the right to express a thought in Hong Kong is now policed the old-fashioned way.

Dissidents in the former British colony are being rounded up, newspapers – as Andrew Neil told you last week – are being closed down. Freedom is in retreat, even as the CCP pursues an aggressive policy of territorial expansion in the Pacific.

To my uncertain knowledge, the pillory isn’t used in China (let me know if you know differently) but then the secret police there prefer to conduct themselves in private.

In our country, upsetting the new Establishment with an inappropriate comment can end your career. In China, it might end your life. More people are executed in China than every country in the world – combined. Here technology can get you cancelled, there it can get you killed. We might just be luckier than we sometimes think.